In Friday's otherwise-bleak jobs report, one sector of the economy stood out for all the right reasons: The trucking industry is running full speed ahead and hiring drivers.

"We can't get trucks and that means there are not enough drivers," said Mike Mady, human resources director for the St. Paul-based produce processing firm J&J Distributing, which supplies Cub Foods and other grocers with carrots, potatoes, yams, and other vegetables and fruits.

Truckers are in hot demand, say local trucking and warehouse executives. Last month J&J, which normally has about 220 workers, added two new Class A drivers and two interns and scooped up seven workers from a temp employment agency because demand for fruit and veggies is way up.

The reason? Crops are ripe and a wider array of summer fruits are in demand, J&J officials said.

"Getting merchandise from the West Coast and East Coast to here is difficult because there are not enough drivers ... so there are new opportunities for people wanting to get into trucking, for sure," Mady said.

Sherman McCallister is one of them. It took him 15 weeks to find a new job after getting laid off from another company. McCallister credits the fact that he has a truck driver's license and driving experience from when he lived in Chicago. He was hired at J&J on May 1 and now delivers produce to Cub Foods and SuperValu locations up to 275 miles away.

"I was surprised by getting the job in just four months," especially since friends in other industries endured painful layoffs lasting nearly two years, McCallister said. "There is a big demand for experienced drivers."

Companies such as C.H. Robinson, Fridley-based Copeland Trucking, Minneapolis-based Murphy Warehouse and others echoed their own hiring bursts. The activity is showing up in economic data. The U.S. Department of Labor last week reported a gain of just 69,000 non-farm jobs nationwide in May. But more than half the gains came from transportation and warehousing.

The American Trucking Association recently reported that trucked tonnage is up 3.8 percent so far this year. And on Tuesday, Ceridian and UCLA reported that their monthly Pulse of Commerce Index rose to 94.92 in May from 94.19 in April. May marked the third straight positive month for the Ceridian index, which tracks diesel fuel purchases for trucks hauling produce, components and finished goods to factories or stores across the country.

"Transportation is highly correlated with manufactured goods that need to be warehoused and transported,'' said Steve Hine, director of Minnesota's Labor Market Information Office. The improvement in the transportation sector is part of what's behind the increased hiring but comes after a long slump, Hine added.

John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, said his 700 fleet members notice the change.

"The economy is growing and especially in certain sectors,'' Hausladen said, particularly in North Dakota, where oil drilling in the Bakken fields is booming.

"We have members in western Minnesota who have trouble hiring the over-the-road drivers, because they are being lured away by the high wages being paid by the oil fields," Hausladen said. Minnesota drivers truck drinking water, mechanical supplies, sand and gravel into North Dakota and haul out sewage and trash.

The driver shortage is such a problem out west that it's created some opportunities for Minnesota Somali drivers who are starting their own truck companies, Hausladen said.

Nationally, Todd Spencer, executive vice president with the 150,000-member Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said his industry has chronic issues with driver turnover because of long hours, modest pay, stricter pollution rules and a recession that forced many smaller firms out of business.

But truckers are enjoying renewed demand from the spike in summer construction projects, manufacturing, the return of the auto sector and a bump from select real estate markets.

"In general, trucking has been picking up over the last 18 months. Not great guns, but a little bit, consistently," Spencer said.

The uptick is appreciated because "from 2007 to 2009, we lost 30 percent of our membership because the economy tanked so bad and for so long," Spencer said.

Tim Hoag, co-owner of Copeland Trucking in Fridley, added nine workers last month as customer calls jumped. The firm now has 72 workers.

"We are a bright spot on the employment scene. Transportation is hiring people and we are going to need more," Hoag said. "Trucking always leads the economy into a recession and it's the first to lead it out. It's a very good indicator of where the economy's going."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725